Civic Leadership and Shared Vision: A Conversation with Doris Koo and Maggie Walker

Doris Koo served as president and CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit specializing in affordable housing finance and community development. She also served as deputy executive director of Seattle Housing Authority, where she led redevelopment efforts in the New Holly and Rainier Vista neighborhoods. In New York City, Koo led Asian Americans for Equality, the biggest owner and developer of low-income housing in the city’s Chinatown and Lower East Side  neighborhoods.

Maggie Walker currently serves as co-chair of Seattle’s Central Waterfront Committee and as chair of Friends of Waterfront Seattle, where she has played a critical role in integrating public interest and involvement into the planning process for development and design of the Central Waterfront. She is also the board chair of the National Audubon Society and a board member of the University of Washington Foundation, where she chairs the Advisory Board of the College of the Environment.

Koo and Walker recently sat down with Seattle Parks Foundation’s Thatcher Bailey to discuss the dynamics of effective civic leadership. Here is an excerpt from their conversation.

Thatcher Bailey: We’ve talked before about how change actually happens in cities, how resources actually get deployed, and how the most innovative solutions get figured out. There is a rich history of civic leaders driving change in Seattle—you two are perfect examples. Can you both talk a bit about how you came to play the roles you do?

Maggie Walker: I started at a small scale and just kept working my way into bigger situations as opportunities emerged. The thing you have to remember is that Seattle has been in flux for the last 25 years, and we are in an environment with lots of moving parts—all constantly shifting, moving, and growing. But it’s clear that’s what I enjoy: being in those situations where there’s flux and unrealized potential and an opportunity to change things.

But there is a balance. Changing things also requires us to keep underlying social constructs intact. If things are in flux and you want to come in and change everything, you don’t really have anything to build on. There’s a sort of patience-impatience quotient that has to be maintained.

Doris Koo: My first big challenge was in New York City, in Chinatown, where, back in the ’70s and ’80s, people were still living in turn-of-the-century tenements that housed the first generation of immigrants. These were decrepit living situations. At the same time, the city also had hundreds of thousands of vacant, abandoned buildings in the Lower East Side, the Bronx, and Harlem because owners walked away due to tax delinquency.

Doris Koo shares her thoughts with Maggie Walker.

So, you had dire needs on the one hand, and then you had a vast, vacant, dilapidated stock on the other. We had to find opportunities out of this huge distress.

And similar to what you found, Maggie, we couldn’t do it alone—we had to maintain some kind of bedrock or infrastructure. That’s what Mayor Ed Koch provided. He declared that he would fix up all these buildings by letting community groups take them, one at a time, for a dollar each if we could find a way to finance them.

And that sparked the interest of civic leadership, from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations to Enterprise Community Partners, who said: We have resources, this is our mission, we know how to put financing together.

Community organizing is very unstructured, very organic. Capital is very structured. Figuring out how to bring them together requires a willingness to trust. Trust is not automatic—but a willingness to trust, an openness to trust, is so important. Because there’s no other way, no other solution, so that’s…

MW: …the most important ingredient in actually getting stuff done.

Looking back, a lot of what I have done comes from being a woman. Women hold society together, and they do it through creating networks of trust. I don’t have an MBA from Harvard and the credibility that comes with it, and because I’m a woman, most of the guys in the room discount everything I say.

What I can create in this situation is a value that people may not even register consciously—it’s the social glue and it’s exactly what you said: that willingness to believe that the other person has good in them. And that they are going to work with you to see good created.

I don’t think you can—certainly I can’t—go in and order people to get stuff done. To get something done, you have to create this web of trust among the people who are going to work with you. There’s no other way.

DK: One person may not be able to do much, but many people working together can. And I have learned that the people driving change are not necessarily part of government.

It will always take civic and community leadership to press a vision forward. I saw that in Seattle when I moved here. Forward Thrust. The Seattle Commons…

MW: Yeah, well…

DK: Yes, the Commons failed, but your waterfront project is succeeding. Something else always comes forward.

If you really sit down and think about it, what made New York City great? It’s not tenement housing or the urban density required to jam so many people together. It’s Central Park or Flushing Meadows Park—legacy investments that make urban living better for everyone. In my life, there are three important things: affordable housing, libraries, and parks.

TB: Nice segue, Doris. In Seattle now, there’s a sense of crisis around density and affordability and homelessness. These are urgent issues reflecting rapidly growing economic inequities. Our political leaders are right to focus on these issues, but what we are losing is any focus on the things-that-make-life-worth-living issues. How do we change the conversation?

MW: I don’t think we have enough people in Seattle who think creatively about capital here, about how to use money effectively in the public sphere. We struggle with tunnel vision, and folks are too quick to jump onto the next bandwagon.

Maggie Walker

There’s a social disconnect there, a misunderstanding of what role leadership plays in bringing different people and ideas and resources together. Finding the right balance.

DK: Yes, the right balance, the responsible way of growing a city. The denser you grow, the more nature you need, and that balance is critical. If density comes with
a pleasant outcome, which is more beautiful, friendly open space, we can create a more livable city for everyone.

This is where we really need civic leadership that has the vision and public leadership that can understand that vision. We need public leadership with the backbone and foresight to say: We are going to take on tough issues, but the city we are building is one that we all will love. You need to find the common threads that tie us together.

MW: The interesting thing about the waterfront project is that it’s remained insanely popular. I mean, every time we poll. When we ask, how do you rate the priorities? Homelessness and transportation are always on top, but folks still think this needs to be built. And we’re able to use this data to urge the politicians to follow through.

DK: When we redeveloped the Rainier Vista and New Holly communities, we could talk to people who would live there. We could ask them about their priorities, what would make a neighborhood work. We had a lot of conversations, and people had a lot of priorities, but the top of the list was always the same: good housing, safe sidewalks, access to schools and transportation, and, of course, parks and open space.

So, the Seattle Parks Foundation cannot just go in and talk about parks and open space. It needs to frame solutions in the same comprehensive ways we want housing advocates to make their case. So that the big picture becomes clearer and clearer, and everyone is pointing to it.

MW: You support better outcomes for everyone if you articulate what you’re doing in this broader sense. The nonprofit community in this town needs to frame themselves as part of this larger landscape: Stop thinking of things so competitively and narrowly.

You know, none of us succeed if any of us fail, right? If any part of the social structure fails, then we all fail.